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Spotlight on the Database of Canada's Early Women Writers

Published October 4, 2017 by Kandice Sharren

In the 1980s, Carole Gerson received a SSHRC grant to research writing as women’s work in Canada and began compiling a list of the names of women whose works had appeared in print. As the digital became more integrated into humanities research and Gerson’s list grew longer, including these names in a print resource no longer made sense. “What do you do when you’ve got the names of 5000 obscure women writers about whom little is known?” Gerson asks. “You create a database.”

The result was actually two databases. The first is the Canada’s Early Women Writers (CEWW) project, an ambitious bio-bibliographical database that aims to compile biographical information about all Canadian women who appeared in English-language publications before 1950 about whom significant information could be found – about 700 to date. Its DHIL-supported offshoot, The Database of Canada’s Early Women Writers (DoCEWW), which launches in December 2017, simplifies this data, presenting basic information about many more writers (some 5000), listing their publications, life dates, and primary residences in an easily searchable format.

Because so little is known about many of the women this project seeks to account for, community members have played a vital role in filling otherwise impossible gaps. The list of writers maintained on the project’s blog has brought project manager, Karyn Huenemann, into contact with a number of local historians and genealogists. Recently, an independent scholar in the UK contacted Huenemann about Isa Grindlay Jackson, author of the poetry collection Ballades and Bits (Toronto, 1937). By combining resources, they were able to reconstruct her biography, revealing a highly mobile transatlantic existence. Grindlay Jackson, who had immigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1910, initially settled in Alberta, where she married Charles Grindlay. After his death in the First World War in 1916, she returned to Scotland, where she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and published a volume of poetry, Ripples from the Ranks of the Q.M.A.A.C. (1918). Grindlay returned to Alberta in 1919 with her mother and two sisters, eventually remarrying. Her poetry appeared in a number of periodicals based in Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg throughout the following decades.

Grindlay Jackson’s story is just one example of the myriad ways that Canadian women have found their way into print. While many women made a career out of publishing their writing, countless others have become published writers as a side effect of other work. According to Gerson, “The history of women in Canada is very much the history of women in print in Canada.” Tracing their publications is an essential part of understanding their lives.